Nineteen years ago this summer, The New Yorker published Peter Steiner's now classic "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" cartoon. That humorous thought holds a bit of wisdom for small businesses with much larger—and more deep-pocketed—competitors.
After all, on the Internet, nobody knows if you're in a penthouse suite commanding a skyscraper of full of minions—or filling product orders out of a corner of your garage.
Thanks to social media, search engine marketing and other new media tools, small companies can now create a much bigger presence than they could ever have dreamed possible in the non-wired age. Couple new media with smart marketing and strategic planning, and the Davids have a clear shot at the Goliaths in their path.
Chief Marketer recently talked with several industry experts to get their ideas on ways small companies can market themselves more effectively and economically both online and offline.
Have a Plan
A lot of small companies just getting started focus the bulk of their energy on creative, and that can be a mistake, says Grant Johnson, president and CEO of Johnson Direct. Being strategic will differentiate your business much faster, he advises.
"Understand your target audience," says Johnson. "Look at your competitors and who they are going after—and then find a niche within that. After that, messaging and how you position yourself will be key. You can't be everything to everybody."
Banks, for example, typically want to go after more affluent consumers who are interested in multiple accounts and keep bigger balances. One company Johnson's agency recently met with is going in the opposite direction, reaching for lower income consumers who might be intimidated by big banks.
"They have a lot of grocery store locations, and they're positioning themselves as the working man's bank," he says.
Don't Get Lost in Search
Buying keywords can be an expensive proposition. Optimize your website for organic search—understand what keywords your audience is using and build your site around them strategically.
"You can't just think creatively in web design," says Johnson. "Your site can be beautiful but have no search functionality. Bottom line: If you're not showing up in your customers' searches, your site isn't built properly."
Social media presences play into increasing your search status as well, notes Jayme Soulati, president, Soulati Media, Inc. "If anybody is doing a keyword search on Google, you'll see Google+ profiles appearing first and websites appearing second—this boosts your opportunity to have your content appear first in a Google search."
Join the Social Circle
If your small business doesn't already have a social presence, what are you waiting for? Social media is an excellent—and inexpensive—way for businesses to build engagement with their target audiences. Small companies can tweet offers for free samples in exchange for testimonials, and use Facebook posts to direct users to dedicated microsites plugging new products.
"It's a great way to establish credibility and create a dialogue," says Johnson. "Your personality can really shine and it can be a good leverage point to get people to understand who you are and what you're doing."
There are numerous ways to create social content, and a small (and probably understaffed) company needs to decide which to focus its energy on, says Soulati. A blog is a great way for small companies to create online content and build their brand identities.
Facebook and Twitter are places everyone feels they need to be, but because both networks have a consumer critical mass, they can feel cluttered—which makes it difficult to engage with prospects who have a busy and constantly changing news feed. Explore some of the other channels, suggests Soulati.
Pinterest—with the opportunity to show off images—may be a great place for your brand. Or, if you're a B2B company, LinkedIn groups could be critical to your business development.
Let the message platform drive your content, and keep that content fresh. But this doesn't mean constant plugs for your wares. "Be a thought leader—don't talk about your products constantly and just have a one-way conversation," Soulati says. "It takes time and effort, but once you make it part of your day-to-day fabric, you can make a lot out of social media."
Just be sure someone is committed to mastering the channels you choose for your company—and make sure it isn't just one person in the organization who understands your social strategy, she warns. "Because if they leave, you're in trouble."
Testing Is Essential
This, of course, is something that all marketers need to keep in mind. But small businesses on limited budgets may skip testing to save a few dollars, and that's a mistake, says Rob Sanchez, president of MeritDirect.
"You need to build the ability to do multiple tests into your budget," he says, noting that the first time you do something you may very well fail—and that's okay.
"It's important to create multichannel efforts and measure your results rather than just doing one-off programs," Sanchez continues. "Your very best work may come down the road."
"Many people mistakenly see testing as just another expense and something they don't have to do," says Alexandra MacAaron, creative director of B Direct Marketing Communications. "Clients are always saying they're happy or they're not happy—but they don't know why. And that means they won't have steady improvement because they won't know whether it was the creative or the offer or something else that moved the needle."
Of course, testing means being able to change your program midstream if needed—and that's something small companies can often do more easily than their behemoth counterparts, Sanchez notes.
"When you're smaller and your decisions are made closer to the ground, you can change your focus and adapt because you don't have the big bureaucracy built up," he says.
"Don't be afraid to make mistakes—as long as they're not catastrophic, you can learn from them," adds Johnson
Remember the Mailbox
This goes for both the virtual and real world mailboxes. While smaller businesses may be tempted to forgo snail mail in favor of less expensive, online marketing efforts, don't discount it entirely.
"You can build a dialogue with social, but direct mail is really good at closing a sale," says Johnson, noting that postcard reminders can be very effective for reaching past customers. "Use it intelligently—it doesn't have to be in large quantities and it's a great way to reach prospects."
The electronic mailbox can also be a great way to stay on your customers' and prospects' radar. Tools like Constant Contact, iContact or Vertical Response make it easy for small businesses to create newsletters driving traffic back to their websites for sales, whitepaper downloads and the like.
Just don't overdo it, says MacAaron. "You can turn people off with daily blasts, especially if your list was built in an unstrategic way and you have no inkling as to the quality of the file."
You can also overload your recipients—not only with too many emails, but with too much content in each email. "Make your blasts more focused—don't try to sell every benefit in every email," she says.
Make the Most of What You've Got
Don't just take a "once and done" attitude with your precious marketing resources. You spent a lot of time and money creating your blog posts, white papers, FAQs, articles and other content, so give them all the play you can, recommends MacAaron.
Did you write a great 10-page white paper? Split it up into several different blog posts. Then shine the spotlight on those blog posts with multiple Facebook postings and tweets.
And note the word multiple. "We made this mistake ourselves when we first started using social media," says MacAaron. "We assumed everyone saw something the first time we put it out there, but of course they didn't."
Don't be afraid of reposting things with different teasers, she says. "Every time you repost, you'll get more hits. You don't want to create redundancy, but you do want to drive people to your content."
The same kind of thinking should apply to all your marketing resources. Once you've invested in something, think about what else you can do with it. "Because they've been working on it internally for so long, some people get tired of a campaign even before it hits the audience," says MacAaron. "But once they've seen it, they could see it again. Slice and dice the information down into smaller pieces for reuse in social media and email."